For Donna

May 2013.

A South Indian journey

Dear Donna,

India is a vast country—and so, naturally, one that will need to be visited many times in order to fully understand the culture and beauty of this place. Fortunately, you have more time than many, and so I feel confident that you will be able to form an initial impression of this country that will equip you to come back again and again, deepening your understanding each time. Your trip will feature all the classics of Southern Indian—from the Taj Mahal to traditional cuisine—but will also take you off the beaten path, as you explore backwater beauty and find relaxation in hidden natural spots and spas.

Day 1: Arrive in Chennai

You will arrive in Chennai at dusk, and be met by Rupa who will take you your Hotel Taj Coromandel to have a restful night’s sleep in order to prepare for the beginning of your adventures the next day.

Day 2: Feeding of the gods

Today, you will begin to become intimately acquainted with Chennai. Formerly Madras, this beautiful city is the capital of the Southern state of Tamil Nadu. There is so much to see, and so much to savor; as you wander, you will feel the rich history all around you. The history of this area goes back to the fourth millennium BC, and the local language, Tamil, is the oldest language in India. Chennai has been the center of political and economic activity for centuries. It was the capital of the East India Company in the 17th century, and now is one of the fastest growing cities in the country today, attracting travelers and investors from all over the world.

I search out, for myself as well as for you, the odd, the unusual, and the unexpected. So, for your first destination, you will see one of the most interesting and oldest areas of Chennai – the City of Mylapore. The area is bustling with local restaurants and small shops selling the items needed for performing a “puja,” a religious ritual—these items include aromatic flowers, colored powders, and sandalwood. You will journey through the narrow streets, finally arriving at the oldest temple in the city: Kapleeswarar Temple. It is a striking example of Dravidian Architecture.

There, you will witness the “feeding of the Gods,” a unique tradition of preparing food to offer the deities. The food is prepared in private kitchens and served symbolically to the deities each day before being sold as “Prasad,” or food blessed by the gods. It is considered very auspicious to eat these offerings. Spend some time watching the preparation, and soak in an explanation of this ancient tradition.

Day 3: Museum in Chennai

In the afternoon you will visit the Madras Museum, housed in the Pantheon Complex. This is where the Public Assembly Rooms were housed in the 18th century, and it used to be the venue for public entertainment in the city. The Museum is a sprawling complex with labyrinthine corridors and many galleries for you to peruse at your leisure. Your focus on this visit will be the Bronze Gallery, with its superb collection of 9th to 13th century bronzes. A personal favorite of mine is of Shiva in his incarnation as Nataraja.

Your guide through this museum will be V. Devika, a renowned scholar and danseuse. She offers a wealth of knowledge, and you will learn many things from her. The topic of focus here will be Nataraja; the making of bronzes, the mythology, and the philosophy, and new research on its connection with astronomy, and the constellation Orion. You will also enjoy a lovely video showcasing the Bharatnatyam dance, which originated in the Tamil region.

After this, you will continue on to the home of Sabitha Radhakrishnan. Sabitha is a renowned chef who has published a highly acclaimed cook book. She is also a textile historian, and you will be treated to a personal exploration of her excellent collection, as well as a delicious meal.

Day 4: Three ancient cities

In the morning you will travel along the coast to Mahaballipuram, now known as Mamallapuram. This open-air museum of Tamil art in living rock is the work of students under the patronage of the Pallava rulers. Strewn along the coast are some outstanding examples of 7th century sculpture—cave temples, an enormous bas-relief depicting scenes from the Indian epic The Mahabharata, and an amphitheater of chariot-shaped temples. The landmark of this marvelous collection is the Shore Temple, a world heritage monument, and the only surviving one from a complex; the others have been claimed by the sea.

You will continue on to Pondicherry, which is best known for Auroville, “The City of Dawn.” This universal town was established in 1968 to continue the teachings and beliefs of the great Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, who lived and worked there. Built as a utopian paradise by his disciple, Mirra Alfassa, and also known as “the Mother,” it was planned so that people could live and work there irrespective or religion, caste, or nationality. The most striking feature here is the Matri Mandir, a spherical marble chamber that is a meditation center. Inside the chamber rests a crystal, which reflects the sun’s rays and serves as a focal point to aid meditation.

In the afternoon, you will take a walk through the former French Quarters with its elegant colonial mansions, tree lined boulevards, bars, and cafés. This is one of the best ways to live the history of this town.

When you are ready, you can retire to Hotel Le Dupleix, whose amenities perfectly fit your specifications.

Day 5: Holy towns and temples

By late morning, you will arrive at Chidambara, the capital of the Chola Empire.

Chidambaram is one of Tamil Nadu’s most treasured holy towns. The Nataraja Temple here is dedicated to Shiva in his form as Lord of the Cosmic Dance. He was the patron god of the Chola kings. This is a living, breathing, active temple, and has priests at every shrine. Some shrines and inscriptions in the temple record its existence before the 10th century. As you will be there in the morning, you will witness the “aarti” ceremony, in which lighted candles are offered to the deities and songs are sung in praise.

From here, you will journey through the heart of Tamil Nadu, stopping at Darasuram. The Airavatesvara Temple is one of the great Chola temples. Originally called the Rajarajesvaram temple when it was built in 1146, it was renamed Airavatesvara Temple after Indra’s white elephant, who followers of Shiva claim worshipped Shiva at this temple. Built mainly of granite, the temple has stunning pillars with beautifully carved Apsara and friezes of lively dancing figures and musicians. Each of the pillars within the temple illustrates mythological stories showing the penance of Parvati, Shiva’s consort.

I have learned by now that, in travel, one must try to see with one’s emotions rather than one’s head. We have been so inundated with tricked up photographs that the magic of a first meeting often pales next to the images one carries. So as you travel through these towns and visit these temples, try to see them with an open heart and mind, and absorb the beauty and tranquility of your experiences.

Following your visit to the Airavatesvara Temple, I have booked you at Hotel Mantra Veppathur for the night.

Day 6: Kumbakonam

Once the capital of the Chola King Rajendra (1012-1024), the town of Gangaikondacholapuram—which literally means “The City of the Chola who conquered the Ganga”—has now all but disappeared. The surviving temple makes a stop here very rewarding. The highlight here is the sculptures and carvings, especially those of Shiva. Of particular note is the panel showing Shiva blessing Chandikesvara, a steward in this household. This is considered to be a masterpiece of Chola art.

Kumbakonam is noted for its many temples and colorful semi-erotic sculpture. There are 18 temples in the town center the oldest being the Nagesvara Swami Temple, a Saivite temple begun in 886 AD. Kumbakonam is also a place of pilgrimage, and every 23 years pilgrims from all over South India visit the Mahamakam Tank. It is believed that on a particular day, nine of India’s holiest rivers manifest themselves in the tank. In 1992, the last year this festival was celebrated, over 2 million pilgrims converged on the tank.

After your day of wandering, you will return to Hotel Mantra Veppathur for the night.

Day 7: Relax in Mangala

Just a short distance away, traveling to Mangala Heritage Home is like traveling to a different world—a world that is uncomplicated, quiet, and serene. This stylish, elegant, and yet simple village house allows you the opportunity to catch your breath, and for a few hours do nothing except allow Arul, the caretaker of this place, to spoil you and for Amma, an excellent chef from the village, to make you a delicious, wholesome, home cooked meal.

Mangala is located on a quiet lane opposite a tank with the temple in the background. The only sounds you hear are birds, the temple bells, and the unexpected sound of the temple elephant trumpeting, announcing the start of the evening ceremony. You will perhaps see the odd bullock cart rumble by, watch a family of goats frolic, or observe the village people returning from a day’s work. At sunset, Amma will return to draw “Kollams”—designs made with rice powder—at all the doorways to keep out evil spirits.

Mangala is peaceful and beautiful, and I know you will appreciate that there are many places to sit and read or day dream—the front verandah or the wonderful shady tropical courtyard between that joins the “old” house to the “new” house.

Day 8: Thanjavur

After breakfast, you will journey to the temple town of Thanjavur. Just 10 kilometers short of the city, you will visit Lakshmi, who makes the traditional Tanjore dolls. A dying folk art, these dolls are made from plaster of paris and papier mâché. They are slowly becoming a craft of the past, but Lakshmi continues taking her wares to the temple to sell.

Following this, you will also stop at the home of master weaver Vijay Genesh, who is trying to revive the weaving styles of the Kanchipuram silks which today are produced en masse on power looms. With his 30 weavers, Vijay only does “made to order” saris and shawls.

In the evening, you will tour Thanjavur.

The capital of the Great Chola Empire, Thanjavur also served as the capital for the Nayaka Empire and Maratha rulers. The Chola kings were great patrons of the arts, and built most of the 93 temples you will find here, of which the Brihadisvara Temple is the showpiece. While they lavished their wealth on the temples, they also encouraged the belief in the divine right of kings, and the practice of donating a part of one’s wealth to the temple for spiritual gain.

You will see the Brihadisvara Temple also known as the “Big Temple.” It was built between 985 and 1012 AD and is a World Heritage monument. It is a magnificent structure, with a 14 story high Vimana—a tiered sanctuary that houses the main deity. Built mainly of granite, the temple has superb inscriptions and sculptures of Shiva, his consort Durga, and Vishnu.

After visiting the temple, you will have time to make a visit to the museum, which has an exceptional collection of bronzes. Retire for the night at Hotel Tanjore Hi.

Day 9: Chettiar houses

In the afternoon, you will travel to Kanadukathan in the Chettinad region. On the way, you will stop at an Ayyanar temple located in a forest. These temples are a mix of craft, myths, and rituals, and feature local deities that are considered to be village guardians. In Hinduism, symbolism plays an important role, and to ensure that the deity can reach them speedily in times of need, devotees bring terracotta horses as offerings. Walking up the forest path to the shrine, you will pass thousands of these horses, some going back many years and in an advanced state of disrepair. Behind the main shrine is the poignant sight of hundreds of terracotta dolls, brought as offerings by women who are unable to have children.

The Chettinad region at one time represented the wealth of Tamil Nadu. The many villages were once the homes of fabulously wealthy merchant families known as the Chettiars. Today, it is an area of mostly deserted magnificent mansions. It was estimated that just one of the Chettiar houses used 300 tons of satinwood and Burma teak in its construction. One of the specialties of these houses is the wood carvings, especially on the doors. The Chettiars will not sell their homes, preferring to let them fall into ruin and returning only for weddings and celebrations.

You will visit some of these mansions with your guide, and meet some of the families who have remained in this area. Tonight, as I know you appreciate being immersed in the local culture as I do, you will stay in a refurbished Chettiar house. Much of the original woodwork and furnishings has been retained.

Day 10: Tile-making

One of the sites you will have the pleasure of exploring today will be the tile-making factory at Athangudi. Originally only tiles from Germany, England and Italy were used in the homes of the affluent; however, as sourcing these became more difficult, the art of tile making developed in this area. You will see the simplest of methods used to make tiles using a wide range of designs and colors. Today, these tiles are in great demand with orders coming from all over the country.

Later, you will have time to browse the excellent antique market. After a delicious Chettinad lunch at the “Bangala,” a private home, you will continue to Madurai and stop at Hotel Taj Residency for the night, which is beautifully suited to your tastes.

Day 11: Minakshi temple

Most cities in India have a legend surrounding their origins. Madurai is no exception, and their origin story tells how Shiva looked down and drops of nectar fell from his locks, resulting in the city being named Madurai –meaning “The City of Nectar.” Ancient Madurai was a center of Tamil culture, famous for its writers and poets, and their history goes back to the 6th century BC, when it traded with Greece and Rome. The Nayaka Kings laid out the old own in the pattern of a lotus, with narrow streets surrounding the Minakshi Temple at the center.

In the morning you will walk through the old town. Housed in the remains of a 16th century ruin nestled amongst the decorated pillars and carvings are a remarkable collection of stalls selling everything from silk scarves to pink plastic hairclips. The walk is a remarkable experience, once you share with local residents and visiting pilgrims.

You will pass streets selling an extraordinary variety of items, but there is order in the chaos. The area is a like a huge, open-air department store, each street dedicated to one particular item—stationery, flowers and fruits, vessels, items used in worship, etc. There is even one lane dedicated to bananas—South India boasts over 50 varieties.

Your path will lead you to the Minakshi Temple. This is an outstanding structure dedicated to Minakshi, the “fish eyed goddess,” who is also the consort of Shiva. Shiva also has a temple dedicated to him in the complex. Since Minakshi is the presiding goddess, the daily ceremonies are first performed at her shrine and then at the shrine of Shiva. This is a living temple and each shrine has priests performing rituals in front of them. You will also get see the decorated temple elephant.

The afternoon is to be spent at your leisure, and return to Hotel Taj Residency in the evening.

Day 12: Beauty of Munnar

Today you will journey to the misty mountains, thick forests, hills covered in a quilt of tea plantations, deep valleys and sparkling streams and waterfalls of Munnar. Munnar has a beauty and a charm that is unsurpassed in any southern hill station. It is a place where you open your eyes to birdsong. In the early morning with the mist covering the higher ranges, it has a surreal beauty.

On this trip, you will fall in love with ferocious nature and timeless culture. You will fall in love with the quiet of the night and the rhythm of the farming day. You will fall in love with a place forgotten by tourists and sought by travelers. Perhaps, most of all, you will fall in love with a rarely encountered sense of equilibrium—between religions, between the gods of fire and fertility and, with the passing of days, in your own self.

Day 13: Tea and spices

In the morning, you will visit a tea plantation and a spice plantation. Once this savory experience concludes, you will visit the remarkable tea museum, where you can watch the entire tea-making process, from picking, to manufacturing, to the final supply chain that brings the end product to grocery stores the world over.

By the evening, you will arrive at Cochin, and stay in Hotel Brunton Boatyard.

Day 14: Mattancherri Palace

You will begin at the Mattancherri Palace, which was commissioned by the Portuguese for the Raja of Kochi in exchange for trading rights. The palace is two stories high, and is built in the traditional Kerala style known as “nalukattu”—four buildings around a central courtyard. Made of wood and richly carved, the palace exhibits memorabilia from the Raja of Kochi’s collection, but it is best known for its outstanding murals painted on the walls. Although they are fading, one can still see some of these excellent 16th century paintings that illustrate episodes from the great Indian epic The Ramayana.

Kerala, and especially Cochin, was one of the main ports on the spice route. The history of Kerala reflects the significant influences these foreign visitors left behind. Christianity first came to India through Kerala, and the Islamic influence in the state can be seen when traveling north. Even after they left, the cultural influence is still seen in the architectural inheritance of Fort Cochin and in the cuisine. The most significant influence is that of the Jews, whose synagogue is one of the main attractions of the area. Surrounding the Synagogue is a jumble of antique shops, spice shops, souvenir shops. It is a delightful area to wander at leisure.

Once your wonderful wanderings conclude, you will meet your guide and continue back to your hotel, stopping along the way on Bazaar Street, famous for its spices.

The afternoon is free for you to explore the area around your hotel. Walking through the narrow roads of the place that is today referred to as the Heritage Zone, you will see various architectural styles reflecting the many cultures that have lived here. Dutch houses stand next to spacious porticoed British plantation style homes. Further down are two churches built by the Portuguese, while standing guard over the harbor are the Chinese Fishing nets. In the narrow alleys of the old city you will come across interesting art galleries exhibiting local talent, small cafes, book shops, and boutiques. Just before sunset, the fishing boats pull in and there are auctions along the waterfront as the excess is sold to local vendors.

Day 15: Canoeing through Kuttanadu

Beginning in the morning, you will journey to Vembanad and begin your tour of the famous Kerala backwaters. You will have a leisurely excursion through the Kuttanadu area of the backwaters. This is one of the few areas where farming is done below sea level, and as you travel through the labyrinthine maze of canals and waters ways you will pass paddy fields, banana and coconut plantations, small villages, and boats ferrying children to school and farmers to the markets.

You will transfer from the houseboat to a smaller canoe to be able to explore the very narrow canals. At sunset, you will disembark and you will stay at Purity, a small six cottage resort that is ideal for your tastes.

Day 16: Relaxing at Purity

You have a free day today to use the excellent spa and take a cooking class, or just enjoy the serenity of the resort. The resort also supports the work of Kerala artist and photographer Abdul Kallam, and you can view the beautifully curated collection at the resort.

Day 17: Returning to Cochin

Awaking refreshed from your rejuvenating time at Purity, today will return to Cochin and connect to Mumbai to make your way home, your mind full of transcendent experiences.

And, so, there we have it. The sense of place is everywhere, in everything. Keep reading, keep listening to music, and keep watching for those story-telling hands. And if we can be of service, please give us a call.